In The Neighborhood

Could Community Choir Singing Be Secret Key to Healthy Aging?

An enthusiastic audience of over 70 community members greeted the April 17 performance of the Community of Voices choir at the Temple United Methodist Church.

The 35 choir members, who rehearsed weekly for six months, are part of a multi-year study designed to evaluate whether singing in a community choir—an accessible and relatively low cost activity—can improve the health of older people.

Community-of-voices

The Community of Voices choir in performance. (Photo: Jaime Roca)

An enthusiastic audience of over 70 community members greeted the April 17 performance of the Community of Voices choir at the Temple United Methodist Church.

The 35 choir members, who rehearsed weekly for six months, are part of a multi-year study designed to evaluate whether singing in a community choir—an accessible and relatively low cost activity—can improve the health of older people.

The Community of Voices study is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Health, is a collaboration between the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing’s Institute for Health & Aging, the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services and the Community Music Center.

Lead researcher Dr. Julene Johnson said the program “expands on a 2006 study by the late geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen that found that older people who participate in weekly community arts programs, including choirs, made fewer trips to the doctor, used fewer medicines, fell less, expressed less loneliness and were more active than control groups.

“Gene Cohen’s study produced important findings on the health benefits of a chorale program for elders, but it was less rigorous and involved fewer participants than this study,” Dr. Johnson continued. “We hope what we’re doing will demonstrate that community arts programs work by keeping seniors healthy.”

Beth Wilmurt, a singing teacher with the Community Music Center, leads the OMI choir and Jazz pianist Richard Daquioag accompanies the choir, underpinning the songs with a lively beat.

“Community of Voices choirs are not just your casual singing group,” explained Wilmurt. “It’s not only about learning songs, there’s voice training and pedagogy, learning how to produce sound, project feeling, and enunciate. I try to choose songs that incorporate what we’re learning. At the same time, they have to be songs the members can relate to and that they enjoy working on.”

Judging from the choristers’ broad grins at the April 17 event, Wilmurt has succeeded. “Everybody absolutely loves it. Whoever misses a session is sorry,” asserted choir member Rose-Marie Ullman.

Community of Voices choirs are open to seniors 60 and older with an interest in singing, a willingness to complete three short study interviews and tests of balance and memory with UCSF staffers, and the commitment to attend one year of weekly rehearsals and perform in three public concerts. Singing experience and the ability to sing on key or read notes are not required.

Dr. Johnson’s team will have completed the data analysis by the fall of 2017. The Community Music Center, recipients of a grant from the Google Bay Area Impact Challenge, is committed to continuing the choirs at least through December 2016.

“We may combine some choirs and we’ve opened the existing ones to new (non-study) members,” said Sylvia Sherman, program director at CMC. “While the continuation choirs won’t be part of the study any longer, we’ve pledged to keep them going.”

Patty Clement-Cihak, the division director for aging support services for Catholic Charities, brought the choir to the OMI site. “Seniors want to age at home and they want to remain healthy, cognitively and physically,” she said. “As a senior service, it’s our responsibility to meet their drive to remain healthy.”

“The Community of Voices program is engaging, challenging, and meaningful for the seniors. What’s particularly good about this program is that it’s evidence-based: the seniors see and are part of the testing. There’s that initial interview, and then they go in for testing every six months.”

Recruitment is currently under way for another Community of Voices choir at the IT Bookman Center. Dr. Helen Dilworth, a member of the music faculty at City College of San Francisco, will direct the Bookman choir; Judy Lee will be the accompanist.

Dilworth outlined her plans for the choir, “I believe everyone has a right to sing. I’m looking for a repertoire with a broad appeal. I think I’ll start with two-part harmony, and go on from there.”

Three choirs are being formed in Bernal Heights, South of Market, and the Castro. “It’s all about healthy aging. As long as seniors come, we want them here,” Clement- Cihak said.

For more information, contact UCSF staff member Rachel Freyre at (415) 475-5903.

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